Faces of Berkeley: Taking a shot at poverty

Berkeley couple creates durable soccer ball to aid children in developing countries

Michael Tao/Staff
Lisa Tarver, along with Tim Jahnigan, created a durable plastic soccer ball to be used by children in developing countries called the One World Futbol.

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For Berkeley residents Tim Jahnigan and Lisa Tarver, a soccer ball is one of the most precious parts of a community.

With this mentality, the couple has created the One World Futbol, a durable plastic soccer ball that is shipped to about 150 countries around the world as a tool to support children in need. With the intention of alleviating stress in and educating traumatized areas, the soccer ball has reached children of all ages from Berkeley to Africa with the help of major sponsors like Chevrolet and General Motors.

In 2006, Jahnigan watched a documentary about children in Darfur who did not have a proper ball to kick around — they had simply tied string around dense balls of trash. With support from his friend, the musician Sting, Jahnigan then set out on a mission to create a ball that could be used on virtually any terrain and not fall apart.

“Inflated balls just aren’t designed for use for most of where the world plays (soccer),” Tarver said. “They’re designed for grass and artificial dirt and not for rocks and rough terrain.”

They found the perfect material in cross-linked closed-cell foam — a material similar to what Crocs shoes are made of — which proved to be not only extremely durable but also very flexible.

“If the surface wears away, (the material of the ball) underneath is exactly the same,” Tarver said. “It has a value that adjusts for altitude, and it never needs to be pumped with air. You can squash it, and it comes right back up.”

The first batch of One World Futbols were sent in 2009 to L’Esperance Center, a rehabilitation camp for child soldiers in Rwanda. The children cherished the nearly indestructible balls, and the camp saved money from not needing to buy new balls each year.

“While it is easy to assume that a ball is just a toy and not as important, it is a luxury to be able to think of ‘play’ as not as important as food, medicine and shelter,” Jahnigan said in an email. “(Play) brings structure, stress relief and community building within a newly evolving and improvised society.”

For the next few years, Jahnigan set out around the world in search of buyers and communities in need. Today, he has gotten support from Chevrolet, UNICEF, the United Nations and Coaches Across Continents.

Although the program has received numerous sponsorships, the high cost of shipping has slightly deterred some organizations, including UNICEF, from buying as many as they would like to.

“(The balls) don’t ship flat, and so we end up shipping a lot of air around the world,” Tarver said. “But it’s just part of what the cost is.”

Locally, however, One World Futbol has begun to make an impact without the high cost of shipping getting in the way.

UC Berkeley students in the One World Futbol at Berkeley student group use the soccer balls to teach kids at Rosa Parks Elementary School about poverty, social responsibility, recycling and health.

“We’re using the soccer ball as a learning device,” said UC Berkeley senior Cesar Lopez. “We talk about how kids in less developed countries don’t have the resources to even buy food. We remind (the children that) they’re still kids too, and they still like to have fun.”

Even though the UC Berkeley program is still young, Lopez has international aspirations for it. Eventually, Lopez hopes to create a chapter similar to the Berkeley one in El Salvador.

“The only (thing) that limits any of our participation is our imaginations. There is nowhere that a ball is not appropriate,” Jahnigan said in the email. “It’s a ball. A ball that simply sustains the healing power of play so that children can be children, no matter where they live.”

Contact Lindsay Lohman at [email protected].